Working with the working woman



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Under New Business the resignation of the editors of Bleachery Life was read and accepted. Acrimonious discussion as to the running of the Bleachery Life. Again we girls shivered. It was announced a certain rich man who recently died had left the Village Club House five hundred dollars--better write no letter of thanks until they got the money. Should the new handbook be printed by union labor at considerably greater expense, or by an open shop? Unanimously voted by union labor. More health-benefit discussions under New Business. It was voted to increase the Board of Management by two additional members--one operative, one from the employing side. Election then and there by a secret ballot. The operative from the "gray" room and singe house was elected over the man from the office force by two votes. Some further housing discussions, and at 11.15 P.M. the meeting adjourned.

"Say, I'm for coming every time." Perhaps we three girls will have started the style of outside attendance at the meetings.

Whether a wider participation of operatives, a deeper understanding of Industrial Democracy and the Partnership Plan, develops or not, certainly they are a long step on the way to some sort of permeation of interest. For the next morning early, my last morning, as I started work, I heard toothless old Mrs. Holley call over to aged Mrs. Owens, whose husband even these days is never sober: "Hi, Mrs. Owens, what do ye know habout hit! Hain't it grand we got out over five million five hundred thousand yards last month?"

"I say it's grand," grinned Mrs. Owens. "More 'n a million over what we done month before."

"Hi say--over fifteen million the last three months. Hi say we're some bleachery, that's what hi say!"

VI

No. 1470, "Pantry Girl"

Perhaps, more strictly speaking, instead of working with the working woman, it was working with the working man. Hotel work is decidedly co-educational! Except, indeed, for chambermaids and laundry workers, where the traditionally female fields of bed-making and washing have not been usurped by the male. Even they, those female chambermaids and launderers, see more or less of working menfolk during the day. So it might be thought then that hotel work offers an ideal field for the growth of such normal intercourse between the sexes as leads to happy matrimony. No need to depend on dance halls or the Subway to pick up a "fella." No need for external administrations from wholesome social workers whose aim is to enable the working man or woman to see something of the opposite sex.

Yet forever are there flies in ointments. Flossie was one of the salad girls in the main kitchen. Flossie was Irish, young, most of her teeth gone. Her sister had worked at our hotel two years earlier, then had sent for Flossie to come from Ireland. The sister was now married.

Innocently, interestedly, I asked, "To a man she knew here at the hotel?"

Flossie cast a withering eye upon me. "The good Lord save us! I should say not! And what decent girl would ever be marryin' the likes of a man who worked around a hotel? She couldn't do much worse! Just steer clear of hotel men, I'm tellin' ya. They're altogether too wise to be safe for any girl."

We were eating supper. The table of eight all nodded assent.

Too wise or not too wise--at least there is a--cordiality--a predisposition toward affection on the part of male hotel workers which tends to make one's outside male associates seem fearfully formal, if not stiffly antagonistic. If one grows accustomed to being called "Sweetheart," "Darling" on first sight, ending in the evening by the time-clock man's greeting of, "Here comes my little bunch of love!"--is it not plain that outside in the cruel world such words as a mere "How-do-you-do" or "Good morning" seem cold indeed?

What happens when a girl works three years in this affectionate atmosphere and then marries a plumber who hollers merely "say" at her?

* * * * *

Behind the scenes in a hotel--what is it all about? To find that out I poked around till the employment-office entrance of one of New York's biggest and newest hotels was discovered. There had been no "ad." in the Sunday paper which would give a hint that any hotel needed additional help. We took our chances. Some twenty men waited in a little hallway, two women inside the little office. One of the women weighed at least two hundred and fifty, the other not a pound over ninety. Both could have been grandmothers, both wanted chamber work. The employment man spied me.

"What do you want?"

"A job."


"What kind of a job?"

"Anything but bein' chambermaid."

"What experience have you had in hotel work?"

"None, but lots in private homes. I'd like a job around the kitchen some place."

"Ever try pantry work?"

"Not in a hotel, but lots in private families. I can do that swell!" (What pantry work meant I hadn't the least idea--thought perhaps washing glasses and silverware.)

He put on his coat and hat and dashed upstairs. He always put on his coat and hat to go upstairs. In a few moments he dashed hurriedly back, followed by another man whose teeth were all worn down in the front. I learned later that he was an important steward.

He asked me all over again all the questions the first man had asked, and many more. He was in despair and impatient when he found I had not a single letter of recommendation from a single private family I had worked for. I could have written myself an excellent one in a few moments. Could I bring a letter back later in the day?

"Can you fix salads?"

"Sure!"


"You think you could do the job?"

"Sure!"

"Well, you look as if you could. Never mind the letter, but get one to have by you--comes in handy any job you want. Now about pay--I can't pay you what you been used to getting, at least not first month." (I'd mentioned nothing as to wages.) "Second month maybe more. First month all I can pay you is fifty and your meals. That all right?"

As usual, my joy at landing a job was such that any old pay was acceptable.

"Be back in two hours."

Just then the employment man called out to the hall filled with waiting men, "No jobs for any men this morning." I don't know what became of the old women.

I was back before my two hours were up, so anxious to begin. The employment man put on his hat and coat and dashed upstairs after my steward. Just incidentally, speaking of hats and coats, it can be mentioned that all this was in the middle of one of the hottest summers New York ever knew.

The steward led the way up one flight of iron stairs and into the main kitchen. Wasn't I all eyes to see what was what! If anyone is looking for a bit of muck-raking about the hinterland of restaurants, let him not bother to read farther. Nothing could have been cleaner than the kitchen conditions in our hotel. And orders up and down the line were to serve nothing which was not absolutely as it should be.

In a corner of the main kitchen the steward turned me over to Bridget, who was to take me here, there, and the other place. By 11.30 A.M., I was back where I started from, only, thanks to aged Bridget and her none-too-sure leadings, I was clad in a white cap and white all-over apron-dress, and had had my lunch. Thereupon the steward escorted me to my own special corner of the world, where, indeed, I was to be lord of all I surveyed--provided my gaze fell not too far afield.

That particular corner was down one short flight of stairs from the main kitchen into a hustling, bustling, small and compact, often crowded, place where were prepared the breakfasts, lunches, and dinners of such folk who cared more for haste and less for style than the patrons of the main dining rooms. Our café fed more persons in a day than the other dining rooms combined. Outside we could seat five hundred at a time, sixty-five of those at marble counters, the rest at small tables. But our kitchen quarters could have been put in one corner of the spacious, airy upstairs main kitchen.

Through the bustle of scurrying and ordering waiters I was led to a small shelved-off compartment. Here I was to earn my fifty dollars a month from 1.30 P.M. to 9 P.M. daily except Sunday, with one-half hour off for supper. I was entitled to eat my breakfast and lunch at the hotel as well.

This first day, I was instructed to watch for two hours the girl I was to relieve at 1.30. Her hours were from 6 in the morning to 1.30, which meant she got the brunt of the hard work--all of the breakfast and most of the lunch rush. To me fell the tail end of the lunch rush--up to about 2.15, and supper or dinner, which only occasionally could be spoken of as "rush" at all. I discovered later that we both got the same pay, although she had to work very much harder, and also she had been at our hotel almost two years, though only nine months at this special pantry job. Before that she had made toast, and toast only, upstairs in the main kitchen.

The first question Mary asked me that Monday morning was, "You Spanish?" No, I wasn't. Mary was a Spanish grass widow. Ten years she had been married, but only five of that time had she lived with her husband. Where was he? Back in Spain. "No good." She had come on to this country because it was too hard for a woman to make her way in Spain. She spoke little English, but with that little she showed that she was kindly disposed and anxious to help all she could. She herself had a stolid, untidy efficiency about her, and all the while, poor thing, suffered with pains in her stomach.

By the time 1.30 came around I knew what I had to do and could be left to my own devices. To the pantry girl of our café fell various and sundry small jobs. But the end and aim of her life had to be speed.

To the left of my little doorway was a small, deep sink. Next to the sink was a very large ice chest. On the side of the ice chest next the sink hung the four soft-boiled-egg machines--those fascinating contrivances in which one deposited the eggs, set the notch at two, three, four minutes, according to the desires of the hurried guest without, sank the cup-shaped container in the boiling water, and never gave the matter another thought. At the allotted moment the eggs were hoisted as if by magic from out their boilings. Verily are the wonders of civilization manifold! The sink and the protruding ice chest filled the entire left side of my small inclosure. Along the entire right and front was a wide work-shelf. On this shelf at the right stood the electric toasting machine which during busy hours had to be kept going full blast.

"Toast for club!" a waiter sang out as he sped by, and zip! the already partially toasted bread went into the electric oven to be done so crisply and quickly that you could call out to that waiter, "Toast for club" before he could come back and repeat his ominous, "Toast for club!" at you. People who order club sandwiches seem always to be in a special hurry.

In the front corner just next the toaster stood the tray of bread sliced ready to toast, crusts off for dry or buttered toast, crusts on for "club," very thin slices for "toast Melba." Directly in front, and next the bread tray, came the tray filled with little piles of graham and milk crackers, seven in a pile. What an amazing number of folk order graham or milk crackers in a café! It seems unbelievable to one who has always looked upon a place furnishing eatables outside a home as a chance to order somewhat indigestible food prepared entirely differently from what any home could accomplish. Yet I know it to be a fact that people seat themselves at a table or a counter in a more or less stylish café and order things like prunes or rhubarb and graham or milk crackers, and perhaps top off, if they forget themselves so far, with a shredded-wheat biscuit.

It is bad enough if a man feels called upon to act that way before 2 P.M. When he puts in an order for such after 6 in the evening--then indeed it is a case for tears. I would get the blues wondering whatever could ail adult humanity that it ordered shredded-wheat biscuits after dark.

Just above the counter holding the bread and crackers was the counter on which were placed the filled orders for the waiters to whisk away. It was but a step from there to my ice box. The orders it was my business to fill were for blackberries, blueberries, prunes, sliced oranges, rhubarb, grapefruit, whole oranges, apples, sliced peaches and bananas, muskmelons, and four kinds of cheese. These pretty well filled the upper half of the ice chest, together with the finished salads I kept ahead, say three of each, lettuce and tomato, hearts of lettuce, plain lettuce, and sliced tomatoes.

In the lower half stood the pitchers of orange and grape juice, jams and jellies for omelettes to be made down the line, olives, celery, lettuce, cucumbers, a small tub of oranges and a large bowl of sliced lemons. The lemons, lemons, lemons I had daily to slice to complete the ice-tea orders! The next pantry-girl job I fill will be in winter when there is no demand for ice tea. I had also to keep on hand a bowl of American cheese cut the proper size to accompany pie, and together with toast and soft-boiled eggs and crackers and a crock of French dressing set in ice. Such was my kingdom, and I ruled it alone.

During slack hours it was easy, too easy. In rush hours you had to keep your head. Six waiters might breeze by in a line not one second apart, each calling an order, "Half a cantaloupe!" "Two orders of buttered toast!" "Combination salad!" (that meant romaine and lettuce leaves, shredded celery, sliced cucumbers, quartered tomatoes, green pepper, watercress, which always had to be made up fresh); "Sliced peaches!" (they could never be sliced in advance); "One order orange juice!" "Toast for club!" then how one's fingers sped!

The wonder of it was no one ever seemed to lose his patience or his temper. That is, nobody out our way. Maybe in the café there was some millionaire hastily en route to a game of golf who cursed the universe in general and the clumsy fingers of some immigrant pantry girl in particular. (Not so fearfully clumsy either.)

Between 2 and 2.30 the rush subsided, and that first day I caught my breath and took time to note the lay of the land.

My compartment came first, directly next the dishes. Next me was a beautiful chef with his white cap set on at just the chef angle. He was an artist, with a youngster about fifteen as his assistant. Some day that youngster will be a more beautiful chef than his master and more of an artist. His master, I found out in my slack hours that first afternoon, was French, with little English at his command, though six years in this country. I know less French than he does English, but we got to be good friends over the low partition which separated us. There was nothing at all fresh or affectionate about that French chef. I showed my gratitude for that by coming over in the afternoon and helping him slice hot potatoes for potato salad while my floor got washed. Every day I made him a bow and said, "Bon jour, Monsieur le Bon Chef," which may be no French at all. And every day he made me a bow back and said, "Bon jour" something or other, which I could tell was nice and respectful, but--I can't write it down. Monsieur Le Bon Chef made splendid cold works of art in jellies, and salads which belonged to another realm than my poor tomatoes and lettuce. Also, he and his assistant--the assistant was Spanish--made wonder sandwiches. They served jellied soups from their counter. Poor humble me would fill "One order graham crackers, little one!" But to Monsieur Le Bon Chef it would be "Two Cream of Cantaloupes!" "One chicken salad!" "One (our hotel) Plate!" (What a creation of a little of everything that was!) Monsieur Le Bon Chef taught me some tricks of the trade, but this is no treatise on domestic science.

I will tell you about Monsieur Le Bon Chef, though by no means did I learn this all my first afternoon. I only picked up a little here and there, now and then. He came to this country a French immigrant from near Toulouse six or so years ago, his heart full of dreams as to the opportunities in America. Likely as not we might now have to add that, after many searchings, he landed a job peeling potatoes at fifteen dollars a month. Monsieur Le Bon Chef was no Bon Chef at all when he landed--knew none of the tricks of "chefness" to speak of. His first day in America he sought out an employment office. Not a word of English could he speak. While the employment agent was just about to shake his head and say, "Nothing to-day," a friend, or at least a countryman, dashed up. "I have a job for you," said the countryman, and he led my Bon Chef to New York's most aristocratic hotel. Monsieur Le Bon Chef could not know there was a cooks' strike on. Down to the kitchen they led him, and for some weeks he drew ten dollars a day wages and his room and board right there at the hotel. To fall from Toulouse into a ten-dollar-a-day job! And when one knew scarce more than how to boil potatoes!

Of course, when the strike was over, there were no such wages paid as ten dollars a day. Nothing like that was he earning these six years later when he could make the beauteous works of art in jelly. I asked him if he liked his work. He shrugged his shoulders and brushed one side of his rather bristly blond mustache. "Na--no like so much--nothing in it but the moaney--make good moaney." He shrugged his shoulders again and brushed up the other side of his mustache. "No good work just for tha moaney." You see he really is an artist. He was my quiet, nice friend, Monsieur Le Bon Chef. Indeed, one night he gave me a wondrously made empty cigar box with a little lock to it. "Ooh La-la!" I cried, and made a very deep bow, and said in what I'm sure was correct French--because Monsieur Le Bon Chef said it was--"Thank you very much!"

So then, all there was on our side of the kitchen was my little compartment and the not quite so little compartment of Monsieur Le Bon Chef, whose confines reached around the corner a bit. Around that corner and back a little way were two fat Porto-Rican women who washed glasses and spoke no English. Beyond them, at the right of the stairs going up to the main kitchen, were clean dishes. They came on dumb-waiters from some place either above or below.

At the left of the stairs were some five chefs of as many nationalities--Italian, Spanish, South American, French, Austrian, who filled hot orders, frying and broiling and roasting. Around the corner and opposite the Bon Chef and me were first the two cashiers, then my special friends, the Spanish dessert man and the Greek coffee and tea man. That is, they were the main occupants of their long compartment, but at the time of lunch rush at least six men worked there. Counting the chore persons of various sorts and not counting waiters, we had some thirty-eight working in or for our café--all men but the two fat Porto-Rican glass washers and me.

Bridget, the dear old soul, came down that first afternoon to see how I was getting along. I had cleaned up spick and span after the Spanish woman--and a mess she always managed to leave. The water was out of the egg-boiling machine and that all polished; the heat turned off in the toasting machine and that wiped off; lemons sliced; celery "Julietted"; and I was peeling a tubful of oranges--in the way the steward had showed me--to be sliced by Spanish Mary for breakfast next morning.

"I'm sure gettin' along swell," I told Bridget.

"God bless ye," said my dear old guide, and picked her way upstairs again.

It was plain to see that down our way everybody's work eased up between 3.30 and 5. Then everyone visited about, exchanged newspapers, gossiped over counters. We changed stewards at three. Kelly, the easy-going, jovial (except at times) Irishman, took himself off, and a narrow-shouldered, small, pernickety German Jew came on for the rest of my time. When we closed up at nine he went to some other part of the hotel and stewarded.

My first afternoon Schmitz sauntered about to see what he could find out. Where did I live, what did I do evenings, what time did I get up mornings, what did I do Sundays? One question mark was Schmitz. One thing only he did not ask me, because he knew that. He always could tell what nationality a person was just by looking at him. So? Yes, and he knew first thing what nationality I was. So? Yes, I was a Turk. But the truth of it was that at the hotel I was part Irish and part French and part Portuguese, but all I could talk was the Irish because my parents had both died while I was very young. Another day, my Greek friend, the coffee man, said he was sure there was a little Greek in me; and an Austrian waiter guessed right away I was a bit Austrian; and every Spaniard in the kitchen--and the hotel was full of them--started by talking a mile-a-minute Spanish at me. So a cosmopolitan, nondescript, melting-pot face is an asset in the labor world in our fair land--all nationalities feel friendly because they think you are a countryman. But a Turk--that stretched boundaries a bit.

For every question Schmitz asked me I asked him one back. His wife and daughter, sixteen, were in France for three months, visiting the wife's parents. As Schmitz's pernicketyness became during the next days more and more impossible to ignore, I solaced my harassed feelings with the thought of how much it must mean to Mrs. Schmitz to be away from Mr. Schmitz and his temperament and disposition for three blessed months. Perhaps the daughter, sixteen, had spoken of that phase of the trip to Mrs. Schmitz. Mrs. Schmitz, being a dutiful wife who has stood Mr. Schmitz at least, we surmise, some seventeen years, replied to such comments of her sixteen-year-old daughter, "Hush, Freda!"

At five minutes to five Schmitz graciously told me I might go up to my supper, though the law in the statute books stood five. Everybody upstairs in the main kitchen, as I made my way to the service elevator, spoke kindly and asked in the accents of at least ten different nationalities how I liked my job. Hotel folk, male and female, are indeed a friendly lot.

The dining room for the help is on the ballroom floor, which is a short flight of steps above the third. It is the third floor which is called the service floor, where our lockers are, and the chambermaids' sleeping quarters, and the recreation room.

There are, it seems, class distinctions among hotel help. The chefs eat in a dining room of their own. Then, apparently next in line, came our dining room. I, as pantry girl, ranked a "second officer." We had round tables seating from eight to ten at a table, table cloths and cafeteria style of getting one's food. The chefs were waited upon. In our dining room ate the bell boys, parlor maids, laundry workers, seamstresses, housekeepers, hotel guards and police, the employment man, pantry girls--a bit of everything. To reach our dining room we had to pass through the large room where the chambermaids ate. They had long bare tables, no cloths, and sat at benches without backs.

As to food, our dining room but reflected the state of mind any and every hotel dining room reflects, from the most begilded and bemirrored down. Some thought the food good, some thought it awful, some thought nothing about it at all, but just sat and ate. One thing at least was certain--there was enough. For dinner there was always soup, two kinds of meat, potatoes, vegetables, dessert, ice tea, milk, or coffee. For supper there was soup again, meat or fish, potatoes, a salad, and dessert, and the same variety of drinkables to choose from. Once I was late at lunch and ate with the help's help. The woman who dished up the vegetables was in a fearful humor that day. People had been complaining about the food. "They make me sick!" she grunted. "They jus' oughta try the ---- Hotel. I worked in their help's dinin' room for four years and we hardly ever seen a piece of meat, and as for eggs--I'm tellin' ya a girl was lucky if she seen a egg them four years."




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